The Next Battle of Standing Rock Is Protesters vs. Tribes

With Donald Trump’s order to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, there’s new activity—and new tension between the forces fighting against him.

Stephen Yang / Reuters

ON THE BANKS OF THE CANNONBALL RIVER, North Dakota—In the first Battle of Standing Rock, the pipeline resisters and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe stood together.

Thousands came to “Stand with Standing Rock” in a collective effort to block the 1,172-mile, 500,000-barrel-a-day oil pipeline from completing its journey under the nearby Missouri River. Through prayer and direct action, they pledged to protect the water for Dakota Natives and some 17 million other Americans, and to prevent the desecration of Native sites. Representatives of some 300 North American tribes planted flags here, and Standing Rock became an international symbol of Native rights and the fight over climate change.

In the second Battle of Standing Rock, as a brutal winter settles in on the Northern Plains, many tribal officials and the hardy “water protectors” are squaring off.

Under other circumstances President Trump’s renewed vow to build the pipeline might have united the two factions. But the tribe wants pipeline foes to leave before anyone freezes to death or drowns when the annual spring snow melt inundates the main protest camp. The Standing Rock Tribal Council, citing public safety, is urging the “water protectors” to shut down all three protest encampments along the Cannonball River. This despite the fact that the original camp, Sacred Stone, is on high ground and private land. The land belongs to Ladonna Bravebull Allard, who has vowed to keep Sacred Stone open. And in a stunning move, the chairman of the nearby Cheyenne River tribe, Harold Frazier, announced the lease of 25 acres of land on the Standing Rock reservation, where pipeline resisters will also be welcome. Many in the camps, including enrolled members of the Standing Rock tribe, resent the council’s edict and have no intention of following it.

“No, I don’t plan on leaving,” said Joseph Hock, a Native and military veteran from Michigan. “I’ll leave when the grandmothers and the matriarchs of the Standing Rock nation ask me to leave. Until then, I’m going to stay.”

Last summer the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) camp reached an estimated 10,000 people, more than all but nine North Dakota cities. Now it has dwindled to the few hundred hardy campers—perhaps 50-50 Natives and non-Natives—willing to brave the subzero temperatures and roaring winds of the Northern Plains. Dirt rings reveal where teepees once stood; summer canvas tents peak out from under snow drifts.

Interviews Thursday revealed a fledgling resistance camp rife with confusion, skepticism, and some flickering hope.

“Our original purpose in being here [was] taking part in those actions,” said Hahano Namoa, a Native Islander from Hawaii who stood warming himself next to a wood stove in a military-style tent. The temperature inside was in the balmy 50s—an improvement over recent sub-zero days, when campers struggled to get any structure warmer than 38 degrees.

“We’re getting pulled from multiple angles,” said Namoa. “The Standing Rock tribe is saying, ‘Get off our land.’ But this momentum we created—it would be a real shame if we all just went our separate ways.” In the beginning, Namoa said, “it was a really cool thing to be part of, and help move forward.” Now, with the Trump order, “nothing short of a miracle is going to stop that pipeline.”

Others say reinforcements are heading toward camp, despite the Tribe’s edict.

“They’re already coming,” said Donald Anthony Long Soldier, rubbing his hands together as he joined Namoa at the woodstove. “They’re at the hotels. They let me know they’re coming.” Long Soldier, a Lakota from Pine Ridge, gave his age as “184 seasons,” or 46 years. “I don’t feel afraid,” he said. “I know these spirits here are going to help us. I know it’s going to be stopped.”

It’s far from clear how many new water protectors intend to come, or exactly where they would stay, given that the main camp is in a flood plain and that all residents must move to higher ground in coming weeks. A mass cleanup of the camp will begin next week.

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Tribal authorities believe the front lines have largely moved to the streets of American cities, and to the courtroom. The tribe is suing to force Trump to honor the Army Corps of Engineer’s pledge, made in the waning days of President Obama’s term, to undertake an Environmental Impact Statement before granting permission to Energy Transfer Partners, the Fortune 500 company, to build the pipeline under the river. That would be nearly the last step before oil begins to flow.

The law requires that changes in agency positions be backed by new circumstances or new evidence, not simply by the President’s whim,” Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault wrote to Trump, pointing out the “the close personal ties you and your associates have had with Energy Transfer Partners.”

Some camp residents are clearly hurt that the tribe would ask them to leave after the months they have spent on the front lines, defending the tribe and its water supply—especially in light of Trump’s announcement this week. In a statement on Thursday, the tribal council declared that it “understands that many wish to return to camp given the Presidential Memorandum issued Tuesday that attempts to push DAPL forward. We stress, however, that further actions at the camp and at the bridge and drill pad are not where we will find success in this struggle moving forward… the focus must shift from maintaining camps to being at the political and legal forefront.”

One clear worry for the tribe is increasingly dangerous frontline confrontation between protestors and police. Since August, Morton County authorities have made more than 620 arrests, most on misdemeanor criminal charges that include “engaging in a riot.” Yet the violence has come almost entirely from police against unarmed protestors. The militarized force, often hundreds strong, is made up of state police, sheriff’s deputies from seven states, and the North Dakota National Guard. In the middle stands an “MRAP,” an Iraq war surplus vehicle built to withstand IED explosions. Police have fired rubber bullets, pepper spray, non-lethal beanbag rounds, “sound cannons,” and water hoses in subfreezing temperatures. One young woman nearly got her arm blown off in an explosion; another was shot in the eye by a tear gas canister. Hundreds have suffered lesser injuries or were treated for hypothermia from the police soakings.

For months, pipeline resisters contended with false police allegations, later retracted, that protestors wielded pipe bombs or bows and arrows. In fact, for the most part, they faced down the authorities with prayer, “smudging” police with the smoke from sacred bundles of wildgrass and sage.

“This started with a prayer in April, and the world responded to the peacefulness of the prayer,” said Retha Henderson, who holds Lakota and Irish-Celtic ancestry and who felt called to the plains last summer to join the prayers. She hitchhiked from Tennessee. “There was a ceremony where the ancestors spoke that we had to stay peaceful, we had to stay in prayer, we had to stay like stones. Prayer has scared them [the authorities] to death.”

Now, however, as frustration builds, the camp shrinks and its tenor shifts, more protestors are releasing their anger at authorities.

“They were telling the police that they are lower than whale shit,” said Henderson. “They were calling the police motherfuckers. They were throwing snowballs at police. Snowballs don’t hurt you. But it is the act of throwing something at them that is aggression, and that’s not what we’re here for.” This, Henderson and others said, is a major unstated reason for the tribal council’s directive to the protestors to go home.

Yet some here believe such fury is sparked by infiltrators—agents provocateurs sent by authorities or the pipeline company to besmirch the reputation of the anti-pipeline movement. “DAPL has provocateurs, and during actions they create turmoil,” said Hock, the Michigan Native and veteran. Strong evidence, and the long history of resistance movements, point to repeated infiltrations, though it is impossible to know how many water protectors have simply let their anger get the better of them.

Either way, the situation is likely to worsen if the Army Corps approves the final step of the pipeline, as Trump has directed. Already North Dakota’s governor has requested “that the Trump administration provide federal law enforcement resources to assist in upholding the law and protecting people and property rights.” Adding federal police to the mix—be they Border Patrol, U.S. Marshalls, ATF agents, or others—would almost surely escalate an already high-stakes, violent showdown.

“Afraid is not the word I would use,” said Linda Black Elk, an ethnobotanist professor at Sitting Bull College, and member of the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council. She sat in the midwives’ yurt of the camp’s medic area. It was so warm she took off her winter coat.

Despite her expressed lack of fear, Black Elk said she also believed that in future confrontations, she and other water protectors could well “stand up on that front line and face clubs to the head,” or possibly even live rounds. “I will stand there to protect my children and I will sacrifice whatever I have to,” she said, her eyes growing watery.

“I’m a mom and a teacher. I never thought I would have to say that I might have to put my freedom or my life on the line to protect my children’s legacy. But I’m willing to do it.”